Mundelein’s History and Future

by John Washington on February 9, 2022

Mundelein Seminary is celebrating 100 years of forming priests in its current location and under its current form on its beautiful campus in the town that shares its name. However the school’s history stretches farther back than the buildings and campus that are visible today. The first bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Most Rev. James Quarter, was able to secure a charter from the State of Illinois for the University of Saint Mary of the Lake on Dec. 14, 1844. The vision of this first frontier shepherd was to have an institution that could provide not only priests, but one that could train the core professions of a growing city such as doctors and lawyers as well. However it was not to be, amid financial difficulties and other priorities in the burgeoning Chicago area, the original seminary closed its doors in 1866.

In the interim years after 1866, Chicago would send its young men to be trained in other schools across the country, often depending on ethnic and linguistic background. German students would be sent to St. Francis in Milwaukee, Polish students to Saints Cyril and Methodious in Detroit, and Irish students to Saint Mary’s in Baltimore. It was also common to send certain students abroad to Europe as well, particularly to Rome or Louvain in Belgium. Chicago was a city of immigrants, and the Church in Chicago was a Church of immigrants as well, the training of its priests being so scattershot was not good for the longterm health of building a single united Church with an American identity. The situation would prove untenable as the city of Chicago had a population of nearly 1,000,000 people and 800 priests in 1916 and still no seminary of its own. This situation would change, and change tremendously when the Archbishop-designate George Mundelein arrived to take possession of his new See in the same year.

“I believe there is no theological seminary there… and if the Lord spares me long enough, Chicago will have a seminary.” Mundelein told reporters this as he was getting on the train in Brooklyn, New York where he had been auxiliary bishop, to take his appointment in 1916. World War I slowed his plans, and forced the grand vision to wait until a more peaceful time, but Mundelein bided his time on other projects, never ceasing his plan. In fact, as early as 1917, the land that the seminary currently sits on was already in the sights of the archdiocese. It was owned by A.F. Sheldon’s “Sheldon’s School of Scientific Salesmanship,” and included several hundred acres along with a lake. The economic distress of the war had driven Sheldon’s school out of business and by 1918, the archdiocese had purchased this initial plot and surrounding plots for a total of about 1,000 acres. When the war concluded, and a generous donor named Edward Hines made a donation in memory of his son, the Lieutenant Edward Hines Jr. who had died in the late war, Mundelein made his announcements to the public.

The plan for the great university was drawn up by the young Chicago architect Joseph W. McCarthy. An apprentice to the great planner Daniel H. Burnham, McCarthy had impressed Mundelein with several church designs early in their acquaintance. He now offered the great talent the opportunity that would seal their lifelong friendship and working relationship — the chance to design the whole university campus. While Mundelein entrusted the design to McCarthy, he still kept the decision-making power in his own hands, being sure to personally approve designs, decorations, and themes. This was to be Mundelein’s seminary. All around were to be symbols of American culture, incorporated directly into the seminary itself, it was to be “American on the outside, but Roman on the inside.” The very look of the seminary was going to put one of the cardinal’s goals for the institution in motion, to portray American Catholics as being able to dutifully be both American, and Catholic. In short, Mundelein wanted it to be an engine of Americanization for his seminarians, and, in turn, for the whole of the archdiocese as “Mundelein’s priests” arrived in parishes in the following years.

The general plan, was to be laid out in the shape of the cross with the focal point to be the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. Today the way that the campus appears was executed almost flawlessly in accord with the plans as they were laid down in 1920. The first students arrived and began their studies in 1921, one hundred years ago, and the focus of this year’s celebrations. The first buildings to go up were the ones that the school would need to support the student residents and faculty, such as the philosophy dorms (now the conference center), convent (Prist Center), refectory and powerhouse. It was to be a self-sustaining place. A farm large enough to grow all sorts of foodstuffs would also be built and maintained on land that today belongs to the campus of Carmel Catholic High School. The center of the whole project, the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, was finished in 1926, where in 1924 at the dedication of the cornerstone, the cardinal said, “May it prove to be through them (the priests being formed), a powerhouse of grace and comfort for you, for your children, and your children’s children, through many generations to come.” In the following few years as classes filled in behind the first, Mundelein continued to build as he needed according to McCarthy’s plans, with the final majestic piece falling into place in 1934 in the form of the auditorium that today bear’s the cardinal’s name in his memory.

“The first students arrived and began their studies in 1921, one hundred years ago, and the focus of this year’s celebrations. The first buildings to go up were the ones that the school would need to support the student residents and faculty…”

While the campus was being built out building by building, a vision coming to fruition, another huge goal was being prepared for by the Cardinal the Archdiocese of Chicago, to host an international Eucharistic Congress. In 1924 the Holy Father granted Cardinal Mundelein’s request that the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress be held in the city of Chicago. It was only the second time that an event of this magnitude would be held in the Western hemisphere and the first time in the United States. The first of these events held in the 1880s had only attracted around 3,000 people, but by the time the announcement was made about Chicago, it was estimated that the crowd would be over a million. In the run up to the event in June of 1926, it was boasted by the archdiocesan newspaper at the time that at least one bishop presided over Mass in every parish church in the city on the opening day of June 20. The grounds of the seminary played a central role in the celebration of this great festival dedicated to the Eucharist as well. The closing ceremonies, a Mass and great procession of the Eucharist, were conducted in front of the then newly finished chapel of the Immaculate Conception and around the lake on campus. A crowd from 700,000-800,000 people came to participate in what was the largest religious event in the history of the United States until that point. All of these pilgrims came to the campus of the seminary in one of the most intricate transportation miracles of the era, dedicated train lines brought hundreds of thousands of them from the city to a specially built platform and station that let off at the main entrance of the seminary grounds on Route 176. Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary then played its part, not just in the history of the Church in Chicago but also a central role in the history of the city itself. The Congress was one of the primary events that helped “put Chicago on the map,” and it was all at the hands of Cardinal Mundelein. Cardinal DuBois of Paris, was said to have remarked at the time, “L’archeveque de Chicago fait des miracles – The Archbishop of Chicago works miracles.”

Among the buildings and events that surrounded the seminary as it was being founded, were the seminarians and faculty who were truly the life of the institution. Life at the seminary in its earliest years looked much more monastic, as the seminary formation of Cardinal Mundelein himself had been, and he wanted it as such in the first rule of life for seminarians that was personally written by the cardinal. Each door was knocked on at 5:35 a.m. and each man wakened by the call, “Bendicamus Dominus! (Let us praise the Lord)” and each man was expected to respond in kind, “Deo gratias! (Thanks be to God)” Then 15 minutes after rising, everyone was expected in chapel to begin the morning prayers, Mass, and morning announcements. Classes and studies occupied a large part of the day, and everything at the seminary was organized around class rank which was arrived at by grades, and formation notes (sometimes in a rather arbitrary way by the cardinal himself). Newspapers, magazines, radios, and most novels were not allowed to seminarians, neither was it permitted to leave seminary grounds without written permission of the rector. Generally the only time seminarians were allowed to visit home was on Christmas or for serious family emergencies. It was a disciplined and structured life, all aimed at turning out men who would be good servants of the Church.

“Mundelein’s whole approach can be summarized by his quote, “the best has been given to you, I now expect the best in return.”

However, while the life under Mundelein at the seminary may have seemed austere, Mundelein also had a reputation for being personally attentive to the formation of his priests, and seemed to enjoy the genuine admiration of his seminarians. While this was owed to his own personality, it was also the result of deliberate planning on the part of the cardinal, who intended his seminary to serve as the engine for a single-minded, Americanized, and loyal clergy. He had every intention that the men he brought to formation would become good Americans and holy priests regardless of the backgrounds that any of them might have carried with them. The cardinal went above and beyond to provide the ideal environment for development of the ideal young American man. The campus design did feature a pool, bowling alley, ball courts, and fields, and any number of artistic outlets. The summers too were always spent in the north woods of Wisconsin, if men didn’t have an alternate assignment, at the villa camp owned by the archdiocese, and the cardinal was always present for the largest social functions to interact. There was not a single point of the life of the seminarians that Cardinal Mundelein didn’t aim to address in forming them into holy priests. Mundelein’s whole approach can be summarized by his quote, “the best has been given to you, I now expect the best in return.”

In 1939, having accomplished many of his ambitions, and transforming the Church in the city of Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein died at his villa on the campus of his seminary. His funeral was one of the largest in Chicago’s history. He laid in state in Holy Name Cathedral for several days, before eventually being brought back to Mundelein where final respects were paid to him before he was laid to rest behind the main altar of the seminary chapel, a place he had labored so hard to bring into reality.

In the decades since Mundelein’s vision was laid out, the mission of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary remains unchanged — to form a Church in every aspect, from the clergy to the laity, that draws ever closer to her Savior. The footprint has grown beyond the Archdiocese of Chicago to embrace the whole Church worldwide. People from all around the world, and from many diverse backgrounds have passed through the gates to carry the message of Christ out of it with a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the gospel.

JOHN WASHINGTONis a second-year theologian studying for the Diocese of Yakima.